For nearly 16 years, Beverly Willett lived with her husband and two daughters in what was her dream home: a four-story, 4,000-square-foot brownstone in Brooklyn, N.Y. But sometimes when life changes, dreams do, too. By 2013, Beverly was a single woman whose eldest had moved out and whose youngest was about to head off to college—and she found herself toying with downsizing.
Though it seemed overwhelming at first, friends encouraged her, and she soon grew excited. Before committing, she wanted to rent and reset in a new city—Savannah, Georgia—for a few months. “I wound up staying!” says the author of Disassembly Required, a memoir about starting over in midlife. Now, she can’t imagine her life anywhere else besides her 1,250-square-foot cottage. “Ultimately, what my friends said was true,” she confides. “Selling my home and downsizing enabled me to reclaim my life and build a path to my future.”
We spoke to Beverly and another couple, who left a large house in Miami to live together in a cabin (with just over 300 square feet of floor space!), for tips on how to live stylishly and comfortably in cozy quarters.
Find accent furniture that pulls double duty
No need to forgo accent furniture—it can make a space feel like a home! Just be sure everything earns its keep. “A big thing to keep in mind is dual or multiple functionalities,” advise John and Fin Kernohan, who call a 304-square-foot cabin in the woods of Georgia their home.
In a tight living room, think lift-top coffee tables. Some sleek models swivel or slide open to provide more surface area while tucking away reading materials. Others have tops that raise, turning them into desks. For end tables, consider a nesting pair. When you need to, just slide the smaller one out. Bonus: A tiny table can double as a plant stand.
Table the big things
Thanks to the catharsis of cleaning out her house post-divorce, Beverly had no problem trading in her old table for a smaller model (try this one) when it didn’t fit into her cottage’s cozy dining room. “I loved [the old] table, but I knew it had nothing to do with my happiness,” she says.
In an open floor plan, a table with matching stools that slide under it will take up less floor space and serve as a visual divider.
Grab a seat!
Beverly learned that “each room doesn’t need to have enough seating in it at all times for all functions.” An upholstered desk chair or stool can be moved from the bedroom into the living room when company comes over, while a covered bench at the foot of a bed that stores extra sheets and blankets can move to the table for a dinner party.
And you don’t need a giant, puffy couch to relax. New versions of midcentury modern sofas offer comfort and style. “In Brooklyn, I had all this cool art deco furniture. But the couch and chairs were never all that comfortable,” says Beverly. “Now I go for comfort, not pretense.” A round, back-end chair can add some color to your living room without a big footprint.
Miniaturize your kitchen
One of the biggest mistakes people make in a compact kitchen? Full-size appliances. “We realized we didn’t need a big, 18-cubic-foot refrigerator, so we replaced it with a 10-cubic-foot fridge,” John and Fin reveal. They also purchased a pressure cooker. “It allows us to cook a multitude of meals without having a multitude of cooking appliances,” they say. Plenty of countertop appliances, from blenders to stand mixers, also come in single-serving sizes.
The duo bid adieu to traditional cabinets, too. “All the shelves and cabinets in our kitchen are open-faced,” they share. “This allows for more storage and keeps us on top of making sure everything is organized and tidy.” In this scenario, pretty stackable plates, bowls, and glassware become de facto decor.
Consider floating shelves
Beverly had an aha moment when she realized she didn’t need bulky bookcases. “There were wall cutouts in my house, so I had my handyman install shelves and voila! I was able to use the space I already had.”
John and Fin opted to hang cube storage units. “We started off with one six-cube unit and now have an entire wall of six-cube and nine-cube units stacked and connected together,” they say. When they need to hide things, they toss them into fabric cube storage bins.
Raise your bedside storage
Get that glow
In a small-scale home, “lighting is more important in creating ambiance,” notes Beverly. “So I focused on finding the right fixtures sooner rather than later.” She left a beloved chandelier in her old house, making room for more appropriate items like pendant lights. “I’m glad I did because my cottage felt more like home the first year I was here,” she says. John and Fin also realized they didn’t need big fixtures: “We replaced everything with energy-efficient LED bulbs and use two main light fixtures.”
Delight in new decorations
In a home without kids, Beverly seized the opportunity to change her color scheme. “With an empty nest, I bought something I’ve always wanted—a white couch! And I put a white carpet in my bedroom.” (Counterintuitively, a large rug can help out a small space by defining multi-functional areas.)
Set up your “office” in style
A bedroom corner or hallway nook works for working! A desk with a storage cabinet and drawer can hold more than just office supplies, and a sleek metallic lamp adds style and function. If there isn’t space for a chair at all times, move over an accent chair when it’s time to work.
Another option is custom furniture: John and Fin added wheels to their dining table, which doubles as John’s work space. Underneath, they built shelves where he can store his printer and other office supplies, which they keep in storage crates. Dry goods for the kitchen also live under the table in wooden fruit crates.
Air out your clothes
Closet space lacking? Clothing racks let you keep your seasonal items handy and stow off-season items out of the way of your living space (like in an attic, garage, or under the bed). Clothing racks can also work by a front door as a coat rack—and provide space for shoes and bags. By their doors, John and Fin hung wall hooks for seasonal outerwear and John’s baseball caps.
Approach your new space as an adventure
Now settled into her cottage, Beverly feels free of physical and emotional clutter. “Downsizing drastically may be hard, but you will learn so much about yourself,” she shares. “In my cottage, I feel cozy and protected. I never expected to feel this way. I love living with less.” As John and Fin say, “Don’t overthink it and don’t listen to the naysayers. You know what you want and what’s best for you, so go for it!”
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